The press conference was packed last Thursday when political rivals Asif Zardari, co-chairman of the ruling PPP, and Nawaz Sharif, leader of Pakistan’s second largest political party, announced their decision to reunite in an effort to remove President Pervez Musharraf.
As part of the move, some members of Sharif’s party will return to government after leaving it three months ago in protest at its decision not to reinstate those judges sacked by Musharraf last year. The reinvigorated Coalition Government will ask the President to seek a confidence vote from Parliament. If he fails, impeachment proceedings will follow.
Musharraf’s imminent demise has been predicted several times since last year. The catalyst has undoubtedly been the lawyers’ movement that spontaneously developed after the President started removing many of Pakistan’s senior judges, beginning in February 2007. Yet the former Chief of the Armed Forces has clung to power, largely thanks to continued support from the Pakistan Army and a Bush Administration that still publicly refuses to criticise him.
Indeed, the US response to the impeachment proposal was that it was an "internal matter" for Pakistan to resolve. According to US officials
quoted in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper,
the US would support any move that is "consistent with the rule of the law and
the Constitution". If Musharraf were to agree to step down, the report alleges,
the US would want "a secure and honourable stay for him in Pakistan". What the
US position would be if the President refused to step down is still unclear.
Things are looking increasingly desperate for Musharraf domestically. He has decided not to challenge the impeachment via Article 58(2) of the Constitution, a provision that enables the President to dissolve parliament. Article 58(2) has already been invoked by presidents three times before, all during the 1990s, to remove Sharif twice and Benazir Bhutto once.
Musharraf has decided instead to contest a no-confidence vote in Parliament. This strategy will require him to convince opposition and smaller parties to vote against the motion. The Government, spearheaded by the PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, requires a two-thirds majority to carry the impeachment motion. They claim to have the necessary votes.
Musharraf may yet evade impeachment or decide to reinvoke his military authority in a repeat of his coup in 1999 that removed the then-Prime Minister Sharif from power. Stranger things have happened in 11th-hour Pakistani politics. But if he does follow that path, there is no guarantee the result would be as bloodless as it was in 1999. According to Pakistan’s press, Musharraf allies have counselled him against another coup on account of widespread disaffection with rising inflation, crime and general insecurity.
What is clear is that the Government’s decision to seek impeachment will lead to decisive outcomes. In 1999, Sharif was public enemy number one. Nine years later, there has been a role reversal. Either Musharraf will be impeached or the Government will have to accept his presidency and move on. This reality makes the drive for impeachment from Zardari and Sharif a surprisingly bold statement for two leaders not known for their decisiveness on matters of policy.
There is, however, at least one group with mixed views on the impeachment. Although the Pakistan Bar Council, the most senior lawyers’ representative group in the country, endorses the move to impeach, some within the movement, such as representatives of the Sindh Bar Association and individual lawyers from the Pakistan Bar Council, believe that now is not a good moment to commence these proceedings.
As noted last week on newmatilda.com, the lawyers’ movement had given the Government until this Thursday 14 August (Pakistan’s Independence Day), to reinstate the judges. On account of the impeachment announcement, the Pakistan Bar Council has decided to extend the deadline one week to 23 August.
Some of the lawyers are concerned that initiating impeachment proceedings now may neutralise their cause. The PPP has announced that it will reinstate the judges within three days if they succeed in impeaching Musharraf. But if Musharraf is not impeached it would ease the pressure on the Government to ensure that the judges are reinstated at all. None of Pakistan’s political parties share deep sympathy for the lawyers and the movement has sought to remain politically unaffiliated.
Perhaps sensing this uncertainty, some provincial judges have accepted an offer of reinstatement from President Musharraf. According to Wajihuddin Ahmed, a respected former Supreme Court Judge who refused to take an oath under Musharraf, these judges will not be reinstated at their former levels but will be the "junior of juniors". Their decision to return on the President’s terms and not as part of a wholesale reinstatement may turn out to be the beginning of the end for the lawyers’ movement.
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